There are two ways one can look at the Cleveland Browns' win-loss record as it stands after eight games—you can be literal with it, and say they're at 2-6, or you can be a bit more generous, but no less accurate, and say they've won two of their last three.
It's not that things have magically come together for the Browns in the past three weeks. All but one of their losses this season were by 10 points or fewer, and any of them could have been Cleveland victories if it weren't for a few mistakes.
The Browns cannot rest on the laurels of victory, however. Their 7-6 win over the San Diego Chargers was ugly, and with the Baltimore Ravens coming to town on Sunday, they need to be prepared for a physical battle, one in which seven points won't likely be enough.
So let's take a closer look at the Browns and where they stand as they head into Week 9 and the second half of the season.
The Good: No Turnovers; Trent Richardson
For two straight weeks, the Browns did not turn the ball over. No fumbles, no interceptions, no muffed punts—nothing. Turnovers are not a way to win a football game and represent serious fundamental problems with the player who keeps committing them.
In the Browns' case, this was primarily rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. Things started out rough for him—he threw four picks in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles—and he's since had two more games with multiple interceptions.
Weeden's interceptions had a lot to do with him simply being a rookie. He was making ill-advised passes instead of throwing the ball away and staring down his receivers. With more experience to his name and some mistakes to learn from, he's improved on a weekly basis. He's also been helped immeasurably by his receivers, who have come together over the past eight weeks and become an asset rather than a liability.
Teams and players with turnover problems generally take a lot of work to turn things around. Weeden, however, seems to have done this work in record time. As long as he doesn't regress in the upcoming weeks, the Browns have an ever-increasing chance to notch more wins and, most importantly, avoid yet another roster shakeup coming with the inevitable coaching changes that are in their cards once the season is over.
Also in the plus column for the Browns is rookie running back Trent Richardson. After injuring his ribs in Week 6, he had just eight carries for eight yards against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7. With the pain clearly limiting his effectiveness, he was pulled from the game and the Browns had just 58 total rushing yards against one of the league's worst run defenses.
Richardson's Week 7 slump even raised the possibility that he could be benched until after Cleveland's Week 10 bye, giving him time to heal and finally play a game at 100-percent health. Head coach Pat Shurmur elected to have Richardson start against the San Diego Chargers last week, likely with the possibility in mind of another benching if he couldn't play well through the pain.
The result was Richardson having his best game of this young season. He rushed 24 times for 122 yards and the team's lone touchdown. With a 5.1 yards-per-carry average against the league's top run defense at the time, it was clear that whatever lingering pain he had in his ribs ceased to matter. He was just going to do his job.
Richardson, finally, looked like the Alabama phenom the Browns drafted in April. If he could have that kind of success, without being fully healthy, against a defense like San Diego's, there's little doubt at this point that he can recreate that performance every week for the remainder of the season.
With the Baltimore Ravens ahead on Sunday, Richardson is hitting his stride at just the right time. The Ravens are struggling to stop the run, and a battering ram like Richardson could easily lead the Browns to a second consecutive victory.
The Bad: Stopping the Run
Cleveland's defense is near the bottom of the league in yards allowed, giving up an average of 392.4 yards per game. Now, yards allowed matters much less than what teams do with those yards, but Cleveland still ranks 20th in points allowed per game, at 23.2, and they need to do more to prevent opposing offenses from moving down the field.
Though stopping the run isn't as hard for the Browns as it was last season, they're still giving up an average of 131.6 rushing yards per game, putting them at 24th in the league, and they're allowing 7.4 rushing first downs per game. Though they rank 15th in rushing touchdowns allowed, the fact that teams can so easily get into scoring position via the run is enough to make this area of their defense a major priority.
The Browns—and the weather conditions—stifled the Chargers' passing game last week, holding quarterback Philip Rivers to 154 yards. However, in games like that, defenses must be prepared for the run and to stop it, and they didn't do as good of a job, with San Diego rushing for a total of 117 yards, 95 of those belonging to Ryan Mathews.
With weather conditions only getting worse as the season goes on, the need to stop the run only grows greater. Outdoor games in the cold weather means grinding it out on the ground becomes an ever more effective manner in which to move the ball, and the Browns need to find ways to keep that under control.
Luckily for Cleveland, they'll have one of their premier run-stoppers back in the lineup starting this Sunday. Defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who has been out since the spring with a torn pectoral muscle, has confirmed he'll be playing this week against the Baltimore Ravens. His first test will be Ravens running back Ray Rice, upon whom the Ravens may rely heavily with quarterback Joe Flacco struggling on the road.
The Browns defense cannot continue to allow 100 or more rushing yards on a weekly basis. Hopefully, Taylor's return will go a long way in helping them contain the run, because they must get this issue righted as quickly as possible.
What's Next: The Baltimore Ravens
The 5-2 Ravens come to town on Sunday, and the Browns hope that the result is a split series with a team they haven't beaten since 2007. It's quite possible—though the Ravens lead the division presently, they're now taking the field without linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb, who both suffered season-ending injuries. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has a slight sprain of his MCL, safety Ed Reed has been playing through a shoulder injury and linebacker Terrell Suggs has only played one game after tearing his Achilles' tendon in May.
Even before the spate of injuries, Baltimore's defense wasn't playing so well. Perennially one of the top-five defenses in the league, they're currently ranked 28th—two spots below Cleveland—in yards allowed per game, at an even 400. They are particularly weak against the run, giving up 142.9 per week and 207.3 over the last three games.
Clearly, the Browns will be hoping for yet another masterful performance from Trent Richardson this week, considering how poorly Baltimore has handled running backs thus far. If he could put up 122 yards on the Chargers defense, it stands to reason he could have far more than that against this iteration of Baltimore's defense.
However, the Browns cannot simply sit back and think the run will come easy. The Ravens are coming off of their bye week recharged and likely more focused on Richardson than they were when the teams first met in Week 4. Cleveland will have to be prepared for the Ravens trying to shut down their run game entirely and forcing Brandon Weeden to throw, likely under a heavy dose of pressure from Terrell Suggs.
On defense, the Browns must bring pressure of their own to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. When it comes to passing under pressure, Flacco ranks 30th in the league—below Weeden, below Andy Dalton and below Philip Rivers, who Cleveland faced last week. He's completing just 41.9 percent of his pressured passes, and he's seeing pressure on 34.3 percent of his dropbacks.
The Browns simply must get to him. They need to be prepared for the possibility of that working, of course, meaning that it will be Ray Rice's chance to carve up their defense, but if they can neutralize Flacco, they have a far greater chance of winning the game.